Is Google bringing back the futuristic Utopia?

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Science Fiction is the way that it reflects the changing times of current culture and the overall ‘mood’ of the world (well, lets be honest, the western world,) as a whole. From the revolutionary sixties and the space race (basically Star Trek) to the birth of the internet and the concept of cyberspace in the eighties and nineties, sci-fi has always been about a generation’s outlook on the world.

Which, of course, suggests that the current outlook on life is pretty bleak. Dystopia rules the Science Fiction world, particularly in the sphere of film and television, which sees nations ruled by violent dictatorships (The Hunger Games, Divergent), worlds destroyed by nuclear war or environmental disasters (Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas being only the most recent offerings) – even recent versions of previous uplifting franchises have been steeped in the idea that the future is dangerous and somewhat depressing (see: Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness.)

Of course, this is unsurprising. There are a lot of things wrong with the modern world, including, yes, violent dictatorships, environmental disasters, nuclear threats, economic depression, and these aren’t problems that can be solved with a few glib words from Kirk and Spock. What’s lacking is a sense of optimism about the future, the belief that we can reach for the better world that previous generations thought we could.

(I always come back to this opening scene from Star Ocean: Til The End of Time, as it encompasses the idea of Sci-Fi utopia pretty well and it’s a gorgeous sequence of animation. Note: Not an endorsement of the actual game, which wasn’t all that good)

However, reading this article from Wired on Google’s plans for a futuristic, green city sparked a few thoughts. Google’s plans certainly won’t be a simple or as accepted in the real world as they are on the page, but knowing that their plans have even been put forward is nice.┬áJust as Virgin Galactic and other private enterprises are trying to re-energise space flight, now that governments have abandoned the idea, maybe Google and other big companies, which have a longer outlook than most five-year elected governments, can revolutionise the world on the ground too. Rather than wallowing in how we’re all going to destroy ourselves, the projects look at the world and want to fix things. They want that same brighter future that Gene Roddenberry wanted for us in Star Trek.

Floating green future cities, copyrighted picture from wired.com

I can’t pretend that these companies don’t have their own problems, especially Google in the way it has approached city projects before (creating a technologically elite society in San Francisco that’s verging on future dystopia all by itself) but I do believe it shows a real cultural change.

And maybe we could see some more cheerful Sci-Fi too. Does it all depend on Star Wars now? I have hopes, anyway.

Plink by DinahMoe – The anonymous jam session

I recently found the web app/game ‘Plink’, and I’ve been completely addicted to it. Plink is an experimental app built for chrome by creative audio company DinahMoe which allows people to create music to a continuous beat. It is fairly simple, you mouse click (or tap if using a touch screen) to create a note and you can change your ‘instrument’. While it is possible to set up sessions with friends, you can also play with a small group of random people.

A screenshot of Plink. Each player has a trail of bubbles – solid ones show where notes have been played. The lines and gaps indicate the notes of the scale.

The best thing I found about Plink was that while the game doesn’t force co-operation between players in any way, that co-operation happened anyway. It would be totally possible to disrupt the musical flow by tapping completely out of time to the beat, or dominate the session by constantly tapping, this didn’t happen at any point whilst I was playing, even though I felt that I almost expected someone to ruin the game (I think there’s another blog topic in there – do we always expect the worst in anything anonymous on the internet?) The music would soon fall into a pattern where one or two people would be creating the tune whilst the other players would be adding accompaniment and waiting their ‘turn’ just as you would in a standard Jazz session.

I suppose it’s possible that most of the people who would be interested in something like Plink would already be musical in some way, but whether or not that’s true I was quite touched by the level of co-operation between users who were only nicknames on a screen. I’ve sometimes found that with many different online games, the less interaction the players can actually have with each other the more they do co operate, and can even find ways to communicate using the tools available – I had several ‘duets’ with other players where we copied each others musical phrases or tried to respond to a phrase with something appropriate.

I found literally as I was writing this blog that DinahMoe have made a number of other sound-based games which sound amazing and I’ll be checking them out right after this.

  • ToneCraft – A game where adding blocks in different places and of different colours in a 3D environment creates a musical composition (Google Chrome)
  • Traffic Jam – A racing game where the music indicates changes of events (so I guess kind of the reverse of the game AudioSurf, in which events change in time to the chosen musical track)

(I have to apologise for the briefness of this article as I haven’t written much in a while and need to get back into the swing of things. I’ll hopefully be starting my Masters Degree Dissertation on Mobile Film making soon and I’ll be writing more frequently. I just felt that Plink was too awesome not to talk about!)

First Foray into Animation – Cbeebies Short Project

I’ve already blogged on here about my MSc Project making an ident for CBeebies, using the programme Adobe After Effects.

I’ve written about some of the physical filming, as well as the Sound Design and Composition, but by far the hardest, more time consuming and most out of my comfort zone has been the animation of the characters. The ‘characters,’ which are the yellow are fairly amorphous so I could animate them simply using after effects and not need to use Maya/Flash.

To do this I used a technique called puppet pinning in which points along the edge of an image can be selected and then moved. Often this deforms the object and ruins the effect, but since these objects are intended to be ‘deformed’ it worked really well. It took a bit of experimentation to find a set of movements that made the characters move in a natural looking way, by varying the length of each pin movement so that they undulated across the screen rather than appearing to slide and float above the ‘ground.’ The effect I was going for was something like a sped-up snail. Sometimes the characters needed only a few pins, but it many scenes they needed to change frame-by-frame. Time consuming but ultimately more effective and satisfying!

However they still needed to be integrated with the real life background. I created drop shadows, which were customised to each character and at some points wereanimated so that they appeared to move beneath the character as if the character were jumping.

The characters on the left are jumping. As the background is plain, the movement of the shadow gives the impression of 3D space.

However the most important technique was masking, which meant that the characters could be a part of the environment, rather than appearing to be pasted over the top.

For example, in the scene below the bugs are jumping through the bars of the gate. A mask was placed over the area where the bug starts, which removed that section of the image so it appeared to be behind the gate.

The scene also required one piece of 3D animation. In the first shot, a ball bounces between the bugs, causing them to scatter briefly. In this previous blog, I detailed how I used a green screen so that a real ball could be keyed into the scene. However I soon ran into a problem with this – the ball had blurred as it passed across the camera. This meant that when I attempted to key the background out, the shape of the ball distorted. I couldn’t remove the green without removing some of the blue as well. If we had changed the frame rate of the camera it might have worked.

Instead, I decided to create a 3D ball shape within After Effects. As the ball was only onscreen for a second or two, it didn’t need to be perfectly realistic, so a blue shape with points of light and shadow, plus an animated drop shadow was a great replacement.

When the ball is moving through the shot it is fast and blurred enough to be convincingly real.

However in all this, there were bound to be a few mistakes along the way, which I made sure to capture on video. Some of them turned out pretty funny when rendered and I put together a quick montage.

Green Screens and Cbeebies (Digital Compositing Project)

This semester at Salford University I’ve been taking a course in Digital Compositing – using programmes like After Effects to create visual effects for film and video. For my I was given the brief to create a short promotional film for Cbeebies. I did some research on the Cbeebies brand, and picked up on the little yellow blobs, (which I believe are called bugs, at least this is how they are referred to in the picture files on their website.)

(Picture from http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/)

Since the short would need to finish with the Cbeebies logo against a white background, I came up with the idea of the bugs taking the words of the logo to the studio. This would involve live action shots in a montage with 2-D characters superimposed on the top. (I’ll make a post going into more detail about this soon)

Yesterday I got some time in the a Greenscreen TV studio at MediaCityUK to shoot a few elements of the film.


(Picture from http://www.salford.ac.uk/mediacityuk/venue/creative-studio-spaces)

One is from the first scene is the film, when the bugs are gathered on a grassy lawn, and a football bounces through. This could have been achieved in the real life shoot if I had had extra people helping me when I filmed the lawn, but this wasn’t possible, and it also gave me the opportunity to show certain compositing effects.

The ball used was slightly shiny and reflected some of the green on the floor, but this isn’t a problem as it will be bouncing off grass in the actual film and instead actually made the shot look more realistic.

The other prop I needed to be greenscreened was a ladder, which the animated bugs need to climb to put up the letters of the logo. Unlike the ball, which was easily picked up in Tescos, this needed to be custom built.

The next few paragraphs are basically about woodworking – I wanted to talk about how I built the props. While prop sourcing and building is a very important part of film making it’s not terribly relevant to the rest of my blog, so feel free to skip ahead three paragraphs to where I talk about filming again.

I decided the the ladder didn’t need to be very big – only big enough that the camera could pick out the detail on it, so I built a prop ladder about eight inches tall, using some pieces of silk stretching frame (made of pine wood) for the vertical pieces, craft sticks (pieces of wood like small lollipop sticks) for the rungs and sides, and a square of balsa wood for the seat at the top

The vertical pieces were cut down to size using a small hacksaw and shaped diagonally at the top and bottom using a craft knife, then the laid down whilst the rungs were glued in place using strong wood adhesive.


(Gluing together the ladder)


(Warning: Sharp objects and fingers should not mix.)

When the rungs were dry, the top diagonal pieces were glued together with both sides clamped in place, then the side pieces were added separately. Finally, I cut a piece of balsa wood down to size and glued it to the top two rungs to create a top step.

(The Robert Jordan novels make good makeshift clamps!)

This Monday, I finally got into the green screen studio to shoot. The film was shot on a 1080 HD camera, against a green screen approximately 15 foot across, with a green floor extending out about 12 foot. The ball required a few attempts to film and as needed to bounce in a straight line – two of us spent about ten minutes bouncing it in and out of shot!

The model ladder was much easier as it essentially involved stills in three different position. There was some concern among the group of people in the studio that because the camera was zoomed in quite far, it was showing up problems with the Green screen floor such as tape, although I am confident that these can be resolved in post by masking in After Effects.

So at this point my next step is to drop the green screened items into the live footage. The ladder will be quite easy, as it will be placed against a white ‘virtual studio’ background – it will only need a shadow to make it convincing. The ball will be harder, not just because it’s shadow will need to move with it and change in size/opacity, but because it needs to look as it is disturbing the grass in the scene slightly. There are several small effects that could possibly be added to achieve this. One is deforming the ball as it hits the ground, a other is to use careful masking to make the ball appear to sink into the grass slightly. I’m mostly going to be experimenting from here on out, and I’ll try to remember to do updates on this project.

Foley Work

Over the past few weeks, my group for Audio Post Production has been busy finishing up the sound for the short Animated film we’ve been working with. We’ll be starting to mix it in 5.1 tomorrow morning.

One of the most fun things for me has been creating the Foley sounds. Foley (named after famous Hollywood sound recordist Jack Foley) is adding in sound effect to fit the screen, such as footsteps, and is used throughout the film industry, not just in animations. Often the sounds produced on set are unusable due to outside interference, and contrary to popular belief cannot be ‘fixed in post!

Although the sounds can be edited into place, it is easier if they are as closely in sync with the picture as possible, so it needs a lot of takes to get right. When factoring in takes where the microphone needed adjusting and there were discussions over the exact sound and how to get it, even a minute of footstep sounds can take an hour.

Rob and Kerry recording the sound of footsteps on a metal sheet

Like all sound effect work, Foley involves a fair amount of experimentation. I spent quite a while rolling a nut down a metal pipe angled towards a camera (borrowed from a DIY-minded neighbour’s shed) to create the sound of a robot rolling out of the end of a drain pipe. The hardest part of this (which I wish I’d videoed) was probably getting the sound of the nut rolling towards the microphone without it popping out of the end of the tube and bouncing off the equipment

For anyone interested in trying this kind of thing, ‘The Sound of Effects Bible‘ by Ric Viers, and ‘Sound Design‘ by David Sonnenschein are fantastic reads, and of course there are plenty of great sites and YouTube videos- I might make a post listing them when I have time.